This week’s parasha, Mishpatim, comes at an important juncture in the lives of the Israelites. They have very recently left the confines of slavery, and physically, the land they had called home since arriving with Jacob nearly 400 years earlier. They are now ostensibly free, though as evidenced by their behaviour in what we read two weeks ago, that freedom needs a little time to develop. Immediately following the crossing of the Red Sea, the Song of Praise to God, the Israelites begin to complain about a lack of food. Surely they must know by now, after 10 plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea, that God is powerful and will provide for them!
We arrived last week at Mount Sinai, where the events of the Exodus concluded with the Revelation. The end of that chapter of our story then moves uninterrupted into the next phase of the narrative, which proceeds now to formalise and structuralise the events from that momentous occasion. This may seem on the surface a needless expansion that comes too soon after all the tumult and change from slavery to freedom.
Yet I believe that the tradition here once again shows a keen awareness of human nature. As people, what better way to conceptualise something than by immersing ourselves in it? If we want to truly understand anything, whether it be our professions, our educations, our values, our history, or our families, we need to live it. As a wise person once taught me, if you want to teach your children to swim, you do not do it in your living room – you take them to the local swimming pool and put them in the water.
God realised that the people, after suffering so long in slavery, had lost the will and desire to be their own agents. They needed to be shaken to the core, their dependency forcibly removed. Yet to simply remove it was not sufficient. Without some form of structure, they would have devolved into a disorganised horde, withered in the desert and been lost to the sands of time. Our new identity was imparted to us at Mt Sinai, but it was an identity which we could not understand without also imparting new forms of behavior which we are commanded to actually do! An identity is worthless without action to back it up. Our behaviours are a reflection of our beliefs. They go hand in hand. One cannot exist without the other. Hence, the powerful and beautifully simple acceptance by the people is uttered, “Na’ase v’nishma (we will do and understand).”
We needed that structure. Structure is more than just rules and regulations. In order to really fundamentally alter, or more properly, form our identity, we needed formulae of structure to flesh out our covenantal relationship, to give meaning to our lives. It was not enough to simply have the revelatory experience. We needed to, and still need to, n’ase (do) so we could and can nishma (understand).
Rafi Kaiserblueth is rabbi of St Albans Masorti Synagogue and a Chaplain in United States Navy Reserve.